No offense to the wheat guys, or rice, or oats. But corn items, says Ronald Hug, Dupo, III., are where it's at.
"There's just no other kind of grain as attractive as corn," he says. "I don't know why. It's like gold, or diamonds. Why is one more attractive than another?"
Whatever the reason, Ronald's sold on corn. His collection includes 60 different box shellers, eight different freestanding shellers, and 20 grinders.
"The more I get in to this," he says ruefully, "the more I see, and the more I want."
His collection started about eight years ago, with an old grinding stone. Now he's a regular on the show circuit, going to at least 15 shows a year ("sometimes two a week," he says). He also goes to a lot of auctions. "That's where I get most of my shellers," he adds. "If you go to a flea market, you'll pay a lot more than at an auction."
Paying more is not something he's prepared to do.
"Fifty dollars is probably as much as I've paid (for a sheller) at an auction," he says. "$75 or $80 shellers are getting pretty common. I saw a sheller they wanted $475 for, and I heard about a guy buying one for $700. That's too much; they're in too big a hurry. If you wait, it'll come around again. You just have to be halfway patient."
Ronald leaves his corn shellers in the condition he finds them.
"Most of them have been laying around the barn or corncrib for 50 years or more," he says. "I've seen displays where they're all painted, and they're real attractive. But I like them just the way they are."
It doesn't take much to get a sheller in working order.
"There's only about eight parts to a sheller," he says. "There's not much to them. Once in a while you'll see one with a crack, but that can be fixed."
Ronald is drawn to the variety of shellers. He has 60 different ones, but the curtain on his collection isn't coming down anytime soon.
"There's still some I'm looking for," he says. "They must have made 300 or 400 kinds of box shellers."
Although he's a seasoned trader, there are shellers in his collection that he says he'll never part with.
"I have one that says Ball Bearing that has a half moon and stars on it," he says. "I've probably seen just one in 100 shows. And I have a hand-held corn sheller. They're so rare; there's just not many of them."
The ultimate addition to his collection? He's looking for a Black Hawk popcorn sheller.
"When I was first starting out collecting, I saw one," he says. "But I was new; I just didn't know."
When Ronald goes to shows, there's plenty of wheeling and dealing. But there's also time for memories.
"The older people will come through and see the shellers, and they'll talk about what they remember when they were kids," he says. "It seems like the ladies, they remember grinding corn for the chickens, and the men, they remember shelling com."
He's seen crude implements and tools once used for corn shelling.
"Even something as simple as nails sticking out of a V-shaped board," he says. "Some of the things the old folks used were so primitive it was amazing. But they just didn't have the money to buy some of this stuff."
By comparison, a manufactured sheller was fairly sophisticated. Still, it was hard work.
"It may have been 'the good old days', but I used to run those shellers at a lot of shows, and that's a lot of work," Ronald says. "It's a lot harder than modern-day farming. Of course, they didn't have the stress then. They didn't have to pay a half a million dollars for a tractor or a piece of equipment."
Ronald was raised on a farm, but he isn't particularly nostalgic about the experience. He opted instead for a career with the U.S. Post Office, where he worked for 37 years. In retirement, his focus is on corn collectibles.
"The hunt's as much fun as finding a piece," he says. "It's more fun than being able to say I have something that nobody else has. And besides, as soon as I get something new, I'll go to a show somewhere and see two of 'em."
Once a collector, always a collector.
"There's certain things," he admits, "that are just so rare, you've got to have them." FC
For more information, Ronald Hug, 8647 Triple Lakes Road, Dupo, III., 62239; (618) 538-5644.
The Corn Items Collectors: a group of about 400 collectors who meet at regional gatherings and one annual national meeting. The group also publishes a newsletter for members. For more information, visit their website at www.cornitems.org.